Chance (1913), by Joseph Conrad

by Mark Wallace

Available for free on Kindle, Chance is not one of Conrad’s better known books now, but it was his first major commercial success on its initial release, succeeding where Nostromo, Lord Jim, et al,, had, relatively speaking, failed. In Jeffrey Meyers’ biography, he suggests reasons for Chance‘s success including: a good publicity campaing, an influential review by Sidney Colvin in the Observer, a dust jacket showing an attractive lady, an “affirmative ending”, and “a romantic and sentimental heroizine who is cruelly victimized and then rescued by love” (Cooper Square, 2001, p. 270). Women don’t usually play a large part in Conrad, not directly anyway. They can be, though, important absent symbolic presences, like Kurtz’s intended in HoD, who appears only briefly, but who can be read as a justification, in her beauty, innocence and embodiment of “that great and saving illusion that shone with an unearthly glow in the darkness”, for the lies and inhumanities of colonialism. But Chance does have a female character among the leads, and it also offers a chance for its narrator Marlow (the narrator of “Youth”, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, revived here after a decade of silence) to expound his views on gender and sexuality.

And it is Marlow’s voice that will determine the reader’s response to the book. Rather than responding to the active characters, one is experiencing everything filtered through Marlow’s voice. I disliked the book, and this comes down to the fact that Marlow is a bore. He’s at his worst when expounding on gender, and as he does this a lot in Chance, one’s patience is sorely tried. The reflections in this book differ from earlier works in that they are responding to feminism – only one year before Chance‘s publication, Emily Davison had thrown herself beneath the king’s horse at the Derby, in one of the most shocking and iconic moments in feminist history. A minor female character in Chance has written a book on feminism and female suffrage:

It was a sort of hand-book for women with grievances (and all women had them), a sort of compendious theory and practice of feminine free morality.  It made you laugh at its transparent simplicity. (51)

As that quote indicates, Marlow does not take feminism at all seriously – or tries not to, though his constant reflections on gender issues indicate that it has given him food for thought. Marlow’s attitude is, in fact, frankly reactionary:

A man can struggle to get a place for himself or perish.  But a woman’s part is passive, say what you like, and shuffle the facts of the world as you may, hinting at lack of energy, of wisdom, of courage.  As a matter of fact, almost all women have all that—of their own kind.  But they are not made for attack.  Wait they must.  I am speaking here of women who are really women.  And it’s no use talking of opportunities, either.  I know that some of them do talk of it.  But not the genuine women.  Those know better.  Nothing can beat a true woman for a clear vision of reality[.] (221)

So it is clear that Marlow has little time for feminism. Those women who actively seek societal change (i.e. those who “attack”, in Marlow’s term here) are simply not “really women”. Thus Marlow is upholding the classic Angel in the House/ Ruskin’s “Of Queen’s Gardens” view of passive, domesticated womanhood, refusing to historicize or contextualize this at all, rather seeing it as the essence of the female role. Note also how arrogantly dismissive he is of any other viewpoint (“say what you like”). Perhaps this steadfast reactionism against an unsettling politico-social phenomenon accounted for some of the novel’s popularity as well.

But the stance taken is so lacking in imaginative sympathy and nuance that one has to question Conrad. To find his attitude even remotely worthy of interest, one would have to posit a considerable gap between Conrad himself and his narrator Marlow. I’ve said before that I don’t think such a gap exists in HoD, and I would apply that to Chance as well. Much is made of Conrad’s irony, and how that pervades even the portrait of Marlow (for example, C.P. Sarvan’s essay), but in that, as in much else, Marlow reflects Conrad. Marlow too is perpetually ironic, mocking, sardonic, as here in Chance:

Marlow emerged out of the shadow of the book-case to get himself a cigar from a box which stood on a little table by my side.  In the full light of the room I saw in his eyes that slightly mocking expression with which he habitually covers up his sympathetic impulses of mirth and pity before the unreasonable complications the idealism of mankind puts into the simple but poignant problem of conduct on this earth. (255)

Marlow, too, is always mocking, an embodiment of that Conradian irony, and can, with this attitude, stand in judgement of all mankind with its pitiful and childish ideals. Conrad and Marlow seem to me to be the prototypical examples of Zizek’s contemporary ideology:

[I]n contemporary societies, democratic or totalitarian, […] cynical distance, laughter, irony, are, so to speak, part of the game. The ruling irony is not meant to be taken seriously, or literally. Perhaps the greatest danger for totalitarianism is people who take its ideology literally […]. (The Sublime Subject of Ideology, Verso, 2008) p. 24.

To be complicit in ideology is not to believe in the system, it is precisely to not believe, but to let one’s actions do the believing for one. The not-believing, then, is done with an overlaying of ironic distance, and is practically indistinguishable from believing. This is Conrad: he does not believe, but he wishes to uphold the status quo, anyway, and he needs to co-opt the ironic position to do it. His irony, in so far as he is being ironic, is not a qualification to his arch conservatism, but a justification for it.

In short, then, I’ve never enjoyed a Conrad novel to any great degree, and reading Chance I’m reminded of all that’s worst about him. Indeed, so uninspiring and irritating a read is it, that it prompts one to reflect on the vagaries of circumstance (and, indeed, Chance) that make a writer into a canonical figure, part of The Great Tradition. In Chance, Conrad failed spectacularly to engage with any degree of sensitivity or balance with an element of the emerging socio-political landscape. All he could do was turn his irony on it, sneer superciliously, and resurrect the ideologies of the past, as a Ruskin without passion, a Ruskin who knew he didn’t believe in the old, but was also unable to engage with anything new.